Canada and the U.S.: A World Apart on Hemp

Date: 16 Jun 1998 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Canada and the U.S.: A World Apart on Hemp

by David Morris
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

June 16, 1998 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

In May, a few miles across the border from Buffalo, 50 Canadian farmers began planting 2,000 acres of industrial hemp, the first commercial hemp crop in that country in 60 years. That same month, south of the border, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration(DEA) held hearings on its proposal to spray lethal chemicals from planes to eradicate any remaining hemp plants growing wild in this country.

Two countries, two radically different attitudes toward the world’s most interesting and controversial crop. Why the difference? Because Canada’s hemp policy is overseen by Health Canada, an agency with no vested interest in keeping hemp illegal. In the U.S., hemp falls under the jurisdiction of the DEA, which receives over $16 billion to fight drugs and finds it in its self-interest to demonize hemp, a cousin of marijuana. Indeed, the DEA receives a reported $500 million a year simply to wipe out wild hemp plants. Thus in the U.S., the policy toward cannabis is both rigid and absolute. In Canada, the government’s approach has been much more flexible and sophisticated.

After a most intensive examination, Canada concluded that although hemp and marijuana are both members of the cannabis family, they are distinct types. One can get you high. One cannot. The agronomic and biochemical differences are well-described by Dr. David West, who received his doctorate in plant breeding from the University of Minnesota, in his recent report, Hemp and Marijuana: Myths and Realities (available on the web at

Canada’s reintroduction of hemp began in 1994, when it granted permission to tobacco farmer Joe Strobel to grow a test plot of l0 acres near Tillsonburg, Ontario. The small plot elicited widespread public attention. To inform the public, Canada’s department of agriculture issued a remarkable four page bulletin on hemp, to this day perhaps the single most concise agricultural discussion of that crop.

In 1995 the Canadian government issued permits for more than l00 acres of test plot in five provinces. This allowed police authorities to become comfortable with hemp, allowed farmers to test different varieties in different soils and climates, and allowed sufficient material to be grown for industries to conduct product testing. In 1996, Canada’s Parliament altered its Controlled Substance and Abuse Act to allow for the commercial planting of hemp. This year, even though many of the permits were issued very late in the growing season, Canadian farmers will still plant as many as 5,000 acres of hemp. Canadian farmers and businesses hope that in the future the permitting process will be streamlined and conducted by the agriculture ministry.

Meanwhile south of the border, our own department of agriculture has yet to issue a report on hemp and refuses to even attend conferences on the crop. The head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, General McCaffrey continues to insist, without offering any scientific evidence, that hemp is a narcotic and little demand exists for the crop. The same month that Canadian farmers began planting hemp, farmers in Kentucky and New Hampshire filed separate lawsuits asking the courts to stop the DEA’s ferocious assault on this crop. Meanwhile, the DEA continues to destroy millions of wild hemp plants, a process that plant breeders like Dr. West decry because they contain the remaining germplasm from the thirty year hemp breeding program conducted by the USDA at the beginning of this century.

Meanwhile, the demand for hemp continues to outpace supply. For Calvin Klein, hemp may provide the fiber of choice for fashion designers. For Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, which launched its own hemp line in May, hemp may provide the oil of choice for the cosmetics industry. Hemp beer, first introduced in North America in 1997, has already garnered prizes at craft beer festivals and demand is soaring A few weeks ago Kentucky researchers announced that hemp meal is an excellent feed for catfish, cows and horses. In England hemp straw is the preferred bedding for the royal horses. Ford and other automobile companies are looking to substitute hemp fiber for fiberglass in plastic car parts.

Canada’s Minister of Agriculture wants to make Canada the agricultural and industrial center for a revived and reenergized North American hemp industry. Canadians are bemused by our government’s head-in-the-sand attitude. For Canadians, this is the best of all possible worlds. Canadian farmers get to grow hemp. Canadian industries get to process and manufacture it into hundreds of final products. And all Americans get to do is buy the raw material or the final products. Perfect for them. Not so perfect for us. This is what happens when four star generals make agricultural policy.

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.